Underworld could have laid claim, at a certain point in time, of being the greatest band in the world. Of course, Karl Hyde and Rick Smith are modest Brits and known to loathe any self-aggrandizing boasts; the music speaks for itself, on record or in person. They truly bloom in a live environment, as a matter of fact. Where most of their peers are revealed, like the Wizard of Oz, to be little more than men with smoke and mirrors, Underworld unleash a godlike stadium-sized audio invasion. Of course, I’m here to share an album, not experience. So from here we go crazycrazycrazycrazycrazycrazycrazy….
Second Toughest in the Infants is an unflinching bravura masterwork. At the time of its 1996 release, Underworld were on a rocket trajectory to the heights of acclaim and airplay. The single Born Slippy (nuxx) from Trainspotting was a breakaway success, their unique breed of progressive electronica was becoming nigh-fashionable, and dance/rave culture itself was reaching a sort of fountainhead. But instead of capitalizing on their flirtation with Top 40 radio, the band dug deep into the studio and returned with their most heady, experimental concoction to date.
Beginning with the kraut-trance triptych of Juanita/Kiteless/To Dream of Love, a 16 minute roller coaster ride through every permuation they were known for at the time, Hyde and Smith go straight for the jugular. This record bleeds hubris – with the talent and ingenuity to back it up all the way. Track two (Banstyle/Sappys Curry) starts gently, the lightly pulsing keys and wispy breakbeats giving listeners a moment for catching breath, before Reilly-ian guitars announce blast-off into a dubbed out night flight over some futuristic aural cityscape. It’s the kind of sound I imagine echoing up from the streets in mildly dystopian worlds from a cyberpunk novel. Not content to simply coast on this deeply compelling groove, the song evolves once more into a synth-frenzied monster – ass quaking big beats and skittering high-hat christen the transformation. The best part is, we’re not halfway through the album yet.
Soaring through moody vocal-inflected dub exploration, minimal techno pulse, post-punk guitar ambiance and some of the most lush production work of the entire decade, the album aggressively works to satisfy throughout its extended running time of 73 minutes. Successfully. Containing one of their most indelible and well-known dance anthems, Second Toughest isn’t content being merely a headphone sojourn or audiophile’s benchmark. Pearls Girl is the kinetic gauntlet thrown down in the face of all would-be imitators, an epic banger transcending its time and place of origin, still heard ringing out of clubs and festivals alike over a decade hence. Aggressive, heavily distorted stream-of-consciousness vocals trading in elements, colors, cultures, conflict, and insanity blow through the stormy mixture of yawning organ ambience, skull-pounding percussion work, and unpredictable structure breakdowns. A relentless pace keeps bodies moving while the mind is lost in the black hole of the eternal refrain, crazy crazy crazy crazy crazy crazy crazy crazy. It may not sound like your cup of tea on paper, but that’s a far cry from the internal frenzy provoked every time this track bursts from a stereo.
As if a landmark recording from one of my favorite artists of all time isn’t enough, I’ve kindly shared the bonus disc, included with a limited edition of the album years ago. Here’s the clincher: it contains not only the towering Born Slippy (nuxx) single (beyond description – the favorite dance track of millions), but the incandescent Rez – a longtime staple of Underworld‘s live oeuvre otherwise unavailable on any major album release. So that basically makes this the essential companion for anyone interested in one of the greatest electronic bands of all time.
[with it's impressionistic cover art and mindblowingly intricate production, the physical cd is a more than worthy purchase at amazon or your local record shop. one glance and you'll need to open it up.]